|Immigrations becoming naturalized citizens in Dublin during a ceremony in May.|
The debate that's going on right now in the U.S. over comprehensive immigration reform is of some interest to us here, not just because it would help many of the Irish who are illegally there.
It's also interesting because of the recognition it gives that greater control of immigration is necessary even in a "melting pot" country as large as the U.S.
If a vast country like the U.S. recognizes the need for greater immigration control, then a tiny country like Ireland, which on a proportional basis has had a far higher immigration rate over the past decade than the U.S., should at least be considering its policies.
The issues involved and the context obviously are different in the U.S. But immigration is a growing issue in Ireland, and there is widespread dissatisfaction among people here with the way it is has been handled over the last 10 years.
Last month, for example, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), the leading research organization in Ireland, produced a report that showed that when our banks and our economy took a nose dive in recent years attitudes here became much harder on immigration.
Well, hello? We hardly needed a roomful of academics and statisticians to tell us that.
But even so, since the ESRI is the leading think tank in the country with the brightest brains working there and it's supported by the state, its reports deserve careful attention.
Its reports are not the kind of anecdotal stuff you read in newspapers. They are based on extensive fact finding, polling and analysis.
The new report revealed that the number of people here who are opposed to immigration from other European countries (which would be mainly Eastern European countries like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and so on) has risen from four percent in 2002 to 15 percent in 2010.
There may also a slight racial factor in our changing attitudes because when people were asked about immigrants with non-European ethnic backgrounds (Africans, Asians etc.) the number opposing such immigration went up from five percent in 2002 to 20 percent in 2010.
There are a few points to note about this. First, people being surveyed on this topic frequently moderate their views because they don't want to appear racist.
Second, the figures are out of date and, given the trend, the number opposing immigration is likely to be considerably higher now.
Third, a national figure like this is an average that dilutes the number of those opposing immigration in the areas where the concentration of immigrants is highest.
So it's pretty safe to assume that the ESRI figure is an understatement of the current position nationally, and probably a gross understatement of the number that oppose immigration in an area like north county Dublin where so many immigrants live.
It's not surprising that the change in attitude mirrors the collapse in the economy here and the climb in unemployment. That indicates that at heart we are not a racist nation, but we do believe in putting our own people first.
The immigration aspect of the ESRI report got wide coverage in the Irish papers a few weeks ago. But most of the papers missed something.
The report was about integration instead of immigration and, in fact, is an annual report done by the ESRI for the Integration Center here (another state sponsored body).
And when you read the report itself you find that the poll on attitudes to immigration was actually part of the European Social Survey, a bi-annual survey carried out by researchers for the EU.
The ESRI team took that poll data and analyzed it for a chapter on immigration in their report. We're so politically correct and paranoid on subjects like race and immigration that we did not even do our own research (in case we get an embarrassing answer). So for this study the ESRI relied on stuff from Europe that is more than two years old.
What we do know from our own census data is that the number of non-Irish living here is now well over half a million (a huge change in a very short time in a total population now at 4.7 million.)
We also know that since the recession began the total number of immigrants here has not declined and, in fact, immigrants are continuing to come here, although in lower numbers.
The reason for this is straightforward. Welfare rates in Ireland are much higher than those in Eastern European countries, so even those who are out of work are better off here. Why go home to Eastern Europe where welfare is a pittance and quickly runs out?
For non-Europeans, mainly "asylum seekers," the application process and the subsequent appeals process, supported by free legal aid, can be stretched out over years. Which makes it attractive to stay because the longer you are here the greater the chance of getting rights here.
What all this means is that Ireland now has a large number of immigrants (about 17 percent of the population) and they appear to be here to stay.
Most of them are here by right since they are EU citizens -- the enlargement of the EU in 2004 brought in the former communist states in Eastern Europe.
At that time, Ireland became one of only three EU countries to allow people from these new EU member countries an automatic right of entry to live and work.
When fears were raised here about this at the time they were brushed off, and we were told that maybe 8,000 to 10,000 Eastern Europeans would come here and that we needed more workers to feed our growing economy. We were also told that they would be very likely to go home again if they were out of work.
This turned out to be a farcically inaccurate estimate of the numbers involved and how long they would stay, as we now know.
As immigration soared during the boom, the politically correct among us then shifted the argument to one about the positive aspects of a "multicultural society," and we were encouraged to embrace "the new Ireland." Anyone failing to do so or raising doubts was ridiculed as a quasi-racist or some kind of retard.
A whole industry grew up around making immigration work (support groups, lawyers, extra language teachers in schools etc., all funded by the taxpayer).
The only problem was that no one had asked the Irish people whether they wanted this high-speed immigration and multicultural society in the first place.
Now at least five years into the crash, the chickens are coming home to roost.
There's no money to pay for any of it. The extra language support teachers have gone, leaving junior school teachers in some areas facing large classes where many of the kids can't speak English.
The multicultural "new Ireland" turns out to be the same as the old Ireland, but with the addition of particular areas where there are high concentrations of immigrants and where different national groups band together.
There is huge pressure on the health service and other state services due to the increased numbers. And as unemployment has climbed among the new arrivals, the welfare bill has gone through the roof. (Unemployment among immigrants is 18.5 percent, among locals it is 14.7 percent.)
And all of this is now paid for by borrowing. We don't actually know what the total bill resulting from our high immigration is because official Ireland does not compile such figures because it might be racist and would definitely be unsupportive of the new multicultural Ireland and therefore unacceptable.
One unofficial estimate I have seen puts the direct costs (welfare, housing, etc.) at close to €200 million a year now and up to €300 million or more if you add in all the extra costs to the state in medical, educational, legal and other services.
As I said, all of this has to be borrowed right now and will eventually have to be paid back by the taxpayer here.
Meanwhile, of course, emigration of the young Irish out of Ireland has soared as jobs have dried up. The stresses that this situation is causing are now starting to emerge more frequently, and they are not all that different from what we have seen over the years in British cities with large immigrant communities which are still not integrated after decades.
In the small towns in north county Dublin where so many immigrants ended up, fights between locals and immigrants are common outside the pubs after closing time. And the current heatwave here is not helping, with a battle on one of the beaches recently between "locals" and immigrants.
Some of the heavy East European and African immigrants, reflecting where they have come from, are on the fringes of crime here and are not interested in working. But the courts find it very hard to remove them.
Like north county Dublin, the sprawling suburb of Tallaght on the west side of Dublin (a place as big as Limerick), now has streets where African or Arab or Romanian families form their own communities. In Tallaght as a whole, around 12 percent of the population is immigrant.
And it's not just in greater Dublin. Some of the big provincial towns around the country are also experiencing the problem.
One newspaper here recently highlighted the situation in the town of Monaghan, where 30 percent of the people are immigrant. Some other big towns in the midlands have numbers that are almost as high.
All of this is breeding deep resentment among many Irish people who are conscious as the economic downturn has continued that many immigrants are getting welfare and state housing while their own sons and daughters are emigrating to the U.S. and elsewhere to find work.
Of course official Ireland and those who are fortunate enough to have jobs and live in "nice" areas with expensive housing and good schools, still support the idea of a multicultural Ireland.
Which is fine for them since their daily lives are unaffected by the stresses of high immigration in other areas. (And being able to hire a Polish plumber in the black economy is always handy.)
But even among these more liberal people there is a very slight, but detectable, shift in attitude lately, with more questioning of overall policy as their tax burden grows to close the budget deficit.
Even many of the very idealistic (students and so on) now admit that the situation is not sustainable. Others would put it more strongly and say that unless we wake up fast we're going to have a major problem here without the resources to tackle it in the future.
The irony is that it is a self-made problem, one that we created over the past 20 years without really thinking about it. Mind you, we got more than a little help from the dreamers in the European Union.
Immigration reform is not just needed in the U.S.